Reflections on Creating a Strong Environment at The Nest

As members of Project Infinity, Kristi and Teresa are participants in the Project Infinity steering committee. The steering committee meets quarterly to reflect on the meaning of the project for the participating schools while simultaneously anticipating and projecting actions for the upcoming school year. Project Infinity is invaluable for us as a school. Through the support and exchange we receive from our colleagues in the project, we constantly are learning strategies to work in more meaningful ways towards deepening an understanding of the Reggio Emilia approach.

During the 2011-2012 school year, the Project Infinity steering committee has been reading the book Art & Creativity in Reggio Emilia by Vea Vecchi (a former atelierista at the Diana School in the city of Reggio Emilia). When the steering committee meets quarterly, we have “book club”-type discussions about a chapter from the book. In addition, one school from the project is responsible for writing a summary/synthesis of the selected chapter to share with the group. For the June 2012 meeting, steering committee members read “Chapter 7: Environments”. The Nest was the school responsible for writing a summary/synthesis of the chapter.
The experience of writing the Chapter 7 summary/synthesis was an important act in moving our work as a school forward. It led us to think about — among many things — our identity as a school, our emerging values, and the struggles and triumphs of our first year. We felt it could be important to share via our blog the thinking that Chapter 7 stimulated.

Synopsis/Synthesis of “Environments”
(Chapter 7 in Art & Creativity by Vea Vecchi)
by educators at The Nest Nursery School

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” 
(from Alice in Wonderland, as quoted in Chapter 7)

For educators at The Nest, this chapter has had a powerful resonation. The Nest is only ten months into the first year of operation; during our infancy, we have had two most pressing challenges. The first of these has been finding like-minded, inspired, inspiring co-educators. The second pressing challenge has been creating a physical environment that reflects our beliefs and values about children, childhood and education. Vea Vecchi’s writings about environments in Chapter 7 of Art & Creativity has been an inspiration and has given us something of a “how-to” in our thinking about imagining and re-imagining the environment at The Nest.

We have chosen to organize our thinking about the chapter around several key concepts that emerged as we read and reflected on the chapter. These concepts are:

  • The value of collaboration between architects, designers, parents, teachers, atelieristas, pedagogistas
  • Research and visible documentation as vital components of thinking and re-thinking about the environment
  • The invaluable and necessary connection between architecture, environment and pedagogy
  • The value of creating an environment that supports children in knowing and interpreting the world, especially through multisensoriality
  • The necessity of resisting the urge to create school environments that suggest stereotypes about education and the culture of childhood

The value of collaboration between architects, designers, parents, teachers, atelieristas, pedagogistas

Throughout Chapter 7, Vecchi describes the collaboration between architects and educators as a strategy that generated many hypotheses and points of view, as well as a means to get beyond the usual “framework” for what school looks like and means. This collaboration led to thoughtful decisions about even minute details of the environment, like what materials to use in building dividing walls within the school. According to architect Tullio Zini, “a school encompasses and reflects many of the themes of everyday life: the relationships with parents, food, sleeping, friendships, attachments, and many other things. So designing a school means confronting and resolving problems in a way that requires many and different competencies.” (p. 102)

Michele Zini, an architect and designer described an advantage of collaboration around creating educational environments: “The hope is that ten different designers who take inspiration from the meta-project produce ten different projects but all with the same ‘flavour’.” (p. 99) This quote reminded us of the process of creating individual classroom environments within the context of a school, and the absolute necessity of preserving “the same flavor” from classroom-to-classroom while respecting the unique nature of each classroom “project”.

Vecchi’s description of the collaboration between Reggio and the Domus Academy which resulted in the publication of Children, Spaces, Relations was exceptional and strong. This meta-project was so strong because of the “contribution gained from making and imagining new possibilities for inhabiting spaces, and the contribution made by exchange and dialogue with people who have specialist competencies…If renewal is to be more than a word it can come only from this collaboration.” (p. 87) Further, Vecchi states, “Our effort consisted in finding words and concepts to represent a kind of environment for children that was far removed from those more generally to be found or imagined in services for children. Children, Spaces, Relations helped us clarify, no least of all to ourselves, our values and choices we had made over the course of years and this made it possible for us to communicate these values more effectively with others.” (p. 89)

In a moment of frustration with which many of us could identify, Vecchi also talked about disappointment with the renovation and design process at some schools in Reggio and the ways in which, ultimately, there was great disregard for the “vision” that educators brought “with the result that once again the part considered ‘theoretical’ was separated from the practical with all the damage this short-sighted and basically banal dichotomy inevitably causes. This was confirmed by the work carried out producing environments that are rather ugly, anonymous and extremely distant from the image hypothesized in the research done with the schools.” (p. 92) While an unfortunate occurrence from the Reggio experience, Vecchi’s honest perspective gives many of us some degree of comfort as we struggle in the creation and design of our own environments – particularly those of us who are creating and designing within the context of larger organizations which have different visions or motivations for the renovation and design of a space

From this collaboration between educators, architects and designers emerged the concept of rich normality. Carla Rinaldi describes “this concept of ‘rich normality’, as the normality that also contains the anomaly, that is fluid, very difficult to inhabit, where there is beauty and ugliness, and we are called upon continuously to redefine beauty and ugliness, and so on.” (p. 101)

Research and visible documentation as vital components of thinking and re-thinking about the environment

According to Vecchi, environments “must always be reproposed, reinterpreted and readapted.” (p. 92)  She also described a particular function of atelieristas in regards to the environment; namely, atelieristas have a particular responsibility as “vigilant sentinels” of this attention to environments, an idea which underscores the wide net which the atelierista casts in her unique role within a school.

Vecchi described a process whereby teachers spent a whole year investigating & observing how spaces in the schools were used by children and adults. For example, educators participated in structured observations using scaled plans of their classrooms which finally revealed that there were two times that were the worst in terms of the quality of the use of the spaces within the school; in the end, these observations led to the creation of the piazza as a metaphor and the mini-atelier in each classroom.

Vecchi also described a somewhat “step-by-step” process that was vital in thinking and re-thinking about the school environment. The first step involved extensive, structured, visible research. The second step was to create visual documentation to communicate the results of the research to colleagues and families. Not until these two steps were undertaken did the final step begin: the actual process of changing the environment. For us at The Nest, we were reminded of our ongoing thinking, discussions, and debates about the hallway of the school, the presence and use of gates, and our efforts to develop strategies to support our vision of an “open” school.

The realization that we have mostly skipped step one and entirely skipped step two in our haste to move to step three has given us pause. We wonder, how often does this happen in our rethinking and redesigning of environment? How often do we make changes to our environments without first engaging in a meaningful process of thinking and reflection?

The invaluable and necessary connection between architecture, environment and pedagogy

A simple quote in the article nicely captures the spirit of this concept: “The means is the message.” (p. 99) Throughout the chapter, Vecchi demonstrates the ways in which pedagogy shapes architectural design and vice versa in a style that she describes as a “closely woven dialogue.” (p. 87) This idea of a closely woven dialogue between the environment and the pedagogy of a school underscored for us the inherent values and beliefs that are reflected, for example, in our decision to locate The Nest in a space that was formerly a residential house.

We were also struck by Vecchi’s pronouncement that an “attention towards physical environments has been a kind of starting point from which to begin a journey of evolution for many groups of educators.” (p. 83) For Mandy and Kristi, this was a reminder of the strength of an experience that we had when we first began working closely with Amelia. Before anything else, we looked carefully and with great intention to the environment of the school. Amelia posed many hard, thought-provoking, challenging questions about why and how the environment was created in the way that it was. Without using an explicit word like “metaphor”, we began to see how apparently simple aspects of the environment like unclothed baby dolls and arbitrary, context-less artwork hung on the wall reflected our image of children and school. It was a strong experience that has never left our mind and many years later we continue to refer to our experiences with Amelia as we attempt to create environments that are deserving of children at The Nest.

We were struck, too, by the idea that the environment reflects and influences our image of the child. “Once the furnishings had been made, the environment immediately appeared different, as did the image of the child and the school housing the child.” (p. 83) “What determines the quality of a project is its capacity to transmit and support a certain image of the child, a child who has a hundred languages and the right to an environment that is rich, multifaceted, complex, well-tended, beautiful.” (p. 97)

The idea of leaving space in the design process for continued evolution to the environment was a concept that was echoed throughout the chapter, especially among the architects. Michele Zini said, “A good design project leaves some spaces (in both the real and conceptual sense) undetermined, so that the teachers and the children can determine their potentials.” (p. 100) Echoing this sentiment was Tullio Zini, who said, “My idea is that in designing spaces you have to propose simple, basic landscapes, in which life can then evolve in a complex way, just as everyday life does. …You need to make suggestions but avoid overly specializing the spaces, because life evolves at a higher rate of speed than you foresee.” (p. 105) The idea that no environment is ever completed or finished, and that the design of a school should reflect this concept, is both exciting and daunting. It means that daily, we as educators, alongside children, face environments that live and breathe with us.

Among all the powerful quotes that we have “plucked” from this chapter, none are more meaningful at the moment for the work that have undertaken at The Nest than these from Paola Cavazzoni, a pedagogista who has worked alongside her fellow educators and architects in the development of school environments:

  • “I think what contributed to the evolution of the dialogue was primarily the idea of relationships: a pedagogy that believes in a child in relationship right from the start is the same as a relational architecture, so I think this indicates that you need to create places with strong relationships to each other, places in which there is not a hierarchal separation between different kind of knowledge, between play and learning, between kitchen, hall and classroom, between inside and outside space…” (p. 103).
  • “Keeping the children in limited spaces certainly makes control easier, but perhaps it also reduces children’s perceptions and questions. Being able to look at things from many points of view is a provocation, but also a metaphor….Designing is a creative act that become more interesting when carried out by pedagogy and architecture together, allowing our research and observations to evolve.” (p. 104)

We are constantly considering and debating ways to create spaces with children that embrace their right to provocative environments – environments that encourage their thinking and actions in strong ways. As an example, we have had many debates about the value of opening the kitchen and dining room to the children even during times when we are not eating. This debate continues and will continue for some time, but these quotes provide a unique and powerful perspective that will contribute immensely to the quality of our discussions.

The value of creating an environment that supports children in knowing and interpreting the world, especially through multisensoriality

“Children explore spaces to make their formal, tactile, sonorous and luminous qualities emerge.” (p. 87) Research conducted by Reggio and the Domus Academy strongly underscored the value and importance of sensory qualities in the environments. “If we consider, and this is universally recognized, that our senses are large and precious receptors for collecting and processing information about reality, then we need to find contexts to accommodate this extraordinary natural patrimony and keep it alive and practicing.” In the research that was conducted, children were invited to investigate the sensory aspects within the school, especially qualities of light, smell, and sounds. Children explored herbs and light as part of this research.

“The space is no longer simply background, but a key player…an image of how we know and learn. …So here we have the concept of designing the environment that also means designing life, which means constructing a context in which it is possible to continue to live.” (p. 98)

We believe that an aim of any environment that is deserving of children is to provide “a sensory richness that is empathic with the children’s cognitive processes. If children are a sensory laboratory, and they know and interpret the world by engaging all five senses, then they deserve an environment that is rich from a sensory point of view with a design that enhances these aspects.” (p. 100)

It is also interesting to consider the metaphor of sensory input when thinking about the design of environment. In the words of the pedagogista Paola Cavazzoni, “Children listen to the spaces and the places, they know how to listen to the language of the space and I think that we adults can, too, if we consider this to be an important element that allows us to live better.”  (p. 105) This concept of listening to spaces and places is intriguing and one that we will work to embrace in our ongoing work at The Nest.

The necessity of resisting the urge to create school environments that suggest stereotypes about education and the culture of childhood

Vecchi cautions us to avoid a temptation to simply rely on the stereotype of “school” in our creation and design of environments. She says, “the environment is an element we perceive strongly and it expresses ideas, not only about space but about its inhabitants, their possible relations with the environment and with each other. Built environments are always windows for ideas. … a place which is lovely and cared for is perceived to be a condition of physical and psychological well-being and, therefore, the right of people in general and even more so of children, all children.” (p. 82)

“If children live in well-tended places and see how a community looks after them, they will more probably become citizens who are attentive towards the environment housing them.” (p. 88) And ultimately, this is likely the underlying goal of all educators and of education in general: to play a role in creating citizens who respect, look after, and feel a responsibility towards their own communities. As Vecchi and her colleagues make clear throughout this chapter, there is great responsibility in thinking and rethinking, proposing and reproposing, creating and recreating rich environments that support children in their development into adults that feel connected to and responsible for the health and well-being of their communities.

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